Child sexual abuse cases don’t develop out of ‘thin air,’ detectives say

Jay Meisel | Highlands Today

— A mere accusation that someone sexually abused a child doesn’t automatically result in the accused being arrested on child abuse charges, investigators said Friday.

“We don’t just pluck a case out of the air and take it to the state attorney’s office, said Sgt. Anthony McGann of the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office’s Special Victims Unit.

In a couple of recent cases where someone was charged with child sexual abuse, the charges have been debated on Facebook. Some vociferously defend the accused person, saying he’s not the type of person to hurt a child. Others say such comments deter victims from coming forward.

Lt. Greg Pearlman, who is with the unit, said it’s not unusual for family members of the accused to be skeptical. Often times, he said, the reaction is that, “He’s a great guy. He can never do something like that.”

McGann said they get cases where they suspect a parent in a child custody case has coached a child. And they also work cases where they don’t end up bringing charges, although in some instances, the detective has “a gut feeling” that something is going on, he said.

There’s just not enough evidence to take the case to the state attorney’s office, he said.

Pearlman said that of the cases presented to the state attorney’s office, which resulted in charges bring filed, the vast majority of the accused ended up taking a plea deal. Pearlman and McGann said they only remember a couple that have gone to trial.

Pearlman said cases come from multiple sources, including deputies and the Florida Department of Children and Family Services.

When they get a case, he said, often times a forensic interview is held with the alleged victim, if the child is old enough for that.

After getting basic information for the investigation, such as the statement from the child, the parent or whoever has become aware of the situation, investigators seek evidence to corroborate the accusation, he said.

In some cases, Pearlman said, physical evidence may be available. But often times that’s not the case, he said, because the allegations don’t stem from a recent circumstance.

“A lot of times the allegations don’t come out for days, weeks, months or years,” he said. “The longer the case has been unreported the less likely we’re going to have success recovering physical evidence.”

They backtrack and see if it’s possible for the crime to have occurred as alleged by the victim, he said.

Pearlman said investigators talk to acquaintances of the victim, as well as family members, who can provide information.

Although Pearlman was reluctant to talk about controlled interviews where the victim and law enforcement may work together to get information from the suspect, he said, that during his career that technique has been used.

Recently, a law was passed that allows victims to present law enforcement with secret recordings of conversations with alleged abuse perpetrators. But, Pearlman said, no cases in Highlands County so far have included that type of evidence.

Assistant State Attorney Steve Houchin said investigators must present authorities with enough evidence to establish probable cause for the allegations. He said that is determined by not only the victim’s statement, but also other evidence that supports the allegation.

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